Five Essential Nutrients for Conceiving a Healthy Baby + How you Can Get Them
This is the second in an educational series of blog posts in partnership with Brisbane based musculoskeletal specialists Thrive Health Co.
Healthy + successful conception relies on the right nutrients being available in abundance.
I started studying my nutrition degree while pregnant with my first daughter + it was only after I delivered my second daughter that I finally finished my study. During those years I learnt so much about the influence of nutrition on a growing foetus than I probably wanted to. If I knew then what I do now, I would have taken my diet way more seriously!
When I reflect on my diet over those years I can’t say that I did anything special in preparation for my pregnancies nor did I focus on my diet while I was pregnant + it was probably because I didn’t consider it to have much relevance to whether I would fall pregnant or whether the baby would be healthy. I always thought that ‘the baby will take what it needs’ was true + so I assumed all would be well.
These days, however, we know much more about the influence of nutrients (or lack of) on the sperm, the egg, the uterine environment + the developing baby as well as how vital it is to consider your diet at every stage of a pregnancy (including the four to six months before conception occurs). And having this information is a wonderful thing because for those of you who wish to enhance your fertility naturally, ensuring you are fully replete in all nutrients required for conception is the best way to put yourself in a position where you will conceive quickly + without additional intervention.
So with that in mind, today’s article is about five of the most important nutrients (they are not the only ones though!) required for a healthy conception. Note also that this article is only about the key nutrients required for conception, not for maintaining a pregnancy. While there is some overlap between the two, the needs of both the mother + the growing baby do change as the pregnancy progresses + thus will be addressed in later posts. For now, let’s talk about what you may need to eat more of to conceive a baby.
Iron for oxygenation of tissues, new DNA production + healthy sperm production
You may think of iron as being important for your energy levels, but it also plays a critical role in both female + male fertility. Developing sperm require appropriate levels of iron + it is also used to keep testicular tissue healthy. Increased consumption of iron in women is associated with less chance of ovulatory infertility as it is essential for generating adequate blood supply for the placenta + the new foetus. Note though that too much iron can reduce fertility in males, so understanding both you + your partner’s current iron levels prior to trying to conceive is vital.
If possible, consume daily a combination of both plant based iron as well as animal based as they work synergistically together. Great sources of plant based iron are amaranth (100gm uncooked), dried apricots (3), lentils (1/2 cup cooked) + quinoa (1 cup, cooked). Animal based sources include chicken + beef liver (100gm, cooked), beef (100gm, cooked), lamb or pork (100gm, cooked). If you have been told that you have low levels of iron, it is important to address this at least three months prior to conceiving as it takes this long to be incorporated into the body + it can be difficult to return to adequate levels once the pregnancy begins.
Folate for sperm production + protection of DNA + egg quality
Folate is essential for DNA synthesis + the regulation of normal gene expression. In other words, whenever your cells are dividing + developing, folate is involved. This means having folate at adequate levels is critically important for the creation of new + healthy sperm as well as the development + proper maturation of your eggs. And this is all before a baby is even conceived!
Inadequate folate status has been shown to disrupt your body’s normal DNA production, leading to poor embryo quality, thus it is a critical nutrient for not only a healthy conception but also the health of the baby throughout the pregnancy. Folate is the form found in food (not the synthetic form found in most supplements) + is far superior than it’s synthetic form folic acid (which in animal studies has been shown to potentially have negative outcomes on a pregnancy). High folate foods include chicken liver (100gm, cooked), cabbage (steamed 100gm), lentils (1/2 cup, cooked), spinach (1/2 cup, cooked), asparagus (5 spears, cooked), avocado (1/2 medium), lettuce (1 cup) + strawberries (8). Folate is easily destroyed by cooking so eat high folate sources raw where possible or only cook them for short amounts of time. Avoid supplements containing folic acid + instead seek those that contain natural or activated folates.
Vitamin C for sperm motility, higher sperm count, follicle maturation + corpus luteum development.
Vitamin C is one of the most critical nutrients for both male + female fertility. Like folate, it is a water soluble vitamin meaning it doesn’t get stored in the body for long + so it is vital to get sufficient amounts of both nutrients every day.
For women, vitamin C plays a critical role in the growth of the ovarian follicle as well as in the synthesis of the corpus luteum (the thing that produces progesterone, which establishes a healthy lining in your uterus to receive the fertilised egg). In men, vitamin C protects sperm from oxidation (i.e. damage) + has been shown to be low in in the seminal plasma of infertile men.
High vitamin C foods include guavas, red + yellow capsicums, golden kiwifruit, oranges, cabbage, rockmelon, cauliflower, asparagus + mango. Like folate, vitamin C is easily destroyed by light + cooking methods, so eat your high vitamin C foods raw or only lightly steamed where possible.
Zinc as the powerhouse for sperm + egg health as well as healthy hormone release in women.
Zinc is found in high concentrations in the testes, the semen + the prostate. In these organs it is not only used for sperm development, stabilisation of sperm cell membranes + motility, but also as an antioxidant to protect against damage to sperm. Low zinc levels have also been found in males with idiopathic infertility. In women, zinc is one of the most critical nutrients required for ovulation, hormone synthesis, DNA replication + egg development.
The status of zinc in tissues is not easily measured + adequate intake is usually measured by a nutritionist via a food intake diary. The best sources of zinc are oysters (6 medium), beef steak (cooked, 120gm), lamb (cooked, 120gm), amaranth (100gm, cooked), cashew nuts (1/4 cup), lentils (1 cup cooked), pork (90gm, cooked). Note also that zinc status has been shown to be reduced in women taking the oral contraceptive pill + those taking long term iron supplementation.
Iodine for healthy thyroid function + sperm motility.
Iodine is one of the lesser known nutrients vital for conception. A recent observational study found that women with lower urinary iodine concentration were 46% less likely to become pregnant in any menstrual cycle over the four year study period. In part, this is due to the relationship between iodine + thyroid health for both men + women, but is also likely because of it’s role in the regulation of female hormones + ovarian health (as an antioxidant).
In Australia, women are more likely to be deficient than men, and while all commercial bread is now fortified with iodised salt (a response to mild iodine deficiency identified across the population), if you avoid commercial breads + the use of iodised salt, you are more likely to be deficient. Talk to your nutritionist about the best way to test for iodine status (as it’s a little tricky) + keep in mind that due to the risk of thyroid dysfunction, it is recommended that you seek the opinion of a qualified practitioner prior to taking a supplement if you think you may have low iodine.
Great sources of dietary iodine are seaweed (dulse rather than nori, a tsp a few times a week), iodised salt (a pinch or two per meal), oysters (6 medium) + salmon (120gm cooked).
Using your diet to increase your fertility naturally
As I mentioned before, the nutrients described above are not the only key players in fertility, there are many more that act in concert with these nutrients to produce healthy hormones + a receptive environment for conception. As some of these nutrients are best absorbed + used by the body in food form, it is best to ask your nutritionist’s advice before commencing with a prenatal supplement. If you require specialised nutritional support to help you conceive you can book an appointment here with couples prices available on request.
Hey! I’m Zoe Morosini, a Brisbane based nutritionist on a mission to show every woman that wants to lose weight or conceive a baby that she doesn’t have to lose her mind trying.